Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The economy of the Eighth District continues to show signs of weakness. The services sector has continued to soften, and sales of both general and big box retailers are down from the same period last year. The residential real estate sector has continued to decline throughout the District. Across major metro areas, sales were about 15 percent below the level from last year, and single-family permits were down about 30 percent. Employment growth has slowed and is estimated to have turned negative in March for many areas. Typically, however, employment growth in the District has been stronger than that for the United States as a whole. Manufacturing has remained roughly flat, despite temporary shutdowns that have affected domestic automobile production. Also, commercial real estate construction remains strong, and vacancy rates are low; however, there are increases in the number of delayed projects. Banks in the District are still in good shape, generally speaking. There have been modest increases in total loans in all categories, including real estate.
Contacts in the shipping and trucking industries reported a mixed bag. In some instances, business seems to be holding up, whereas in others it is down substantially. These businesses are being critically affected by increases in energy prices. Similarly, a contact in the fast food industry painted a picture of a business struggling with substantial increases in commodity prices. On the other hand, a contact in a large technology firm indicated that business is holding up quite well, in part because a large fraction of this firm’s business is overseas. Contacts in the energy sector reported robust business prospects, as expected. A contact at a large financial firm suggested that the discovery process concerning asset-backed securities, which has been ongoing for many months, has effectively come to a close. The idea that the discovery process—and the considerable macroeconomic uncertainty that attended that process—is over is an important consideration at this juncture. My sense is that expectations of future economic performance are changing rapidly. The probability that the U.S. economy will enter into a debilitating depression-like state has fallen dramatically.
In the meantime, other risks have increased markedly—in particular, that the FOMC will lose credibility with respect to its inflation goals. The U.S. economy has certainly encountered a large shock. Monetary policy can mitigate the effects of a large shock but cannot be expected to completely offset exceptional disturbances. Attempts to do too much may create more and more- dangerous problems in the future. Best-practice monetary policy would do well, it seems to me, to avoid setting the stage for future problems.
The problems with the rate structure, which is too low, are threefold. First, there is the risk of setting up a new bubble. The exceptionally low rates of a few years ago are sometimes cited as providing fuel for today’s problems. Some have argued that today’s commodity price increases are exactly that new bubble. Second, continued unabated reductions in interest rates will bring the zero bound issue into play with unknown consequences. Third, still lower rates will push the envelope further on inflationary expectations. Those expectations may appear to be reasonably well anchored today, but that is because the private sector expects us to take actions to keep inflation low and stable. Should those expectations become unmoored, it will be too late, and an era of higher and more volatile inflation would be very costly for American households. Much has been done already. A low rate environment has been created and has been in place only for a short time. Marginal moves at this juncture are minor compared with the general thrust of policy over the last nine months. The Committee would do much better at this meeting by taking steps to address eroding credibility. Thank you.